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At A Fast Clip: Rob Balder Talks to Comixpedia

Rob Balder has been delighting webcomics readers, readers of independent newspapers, convention-goers, and booklovers for several years now with his Partially Clips. He paused long enough in a busy schedule to answer ten questions at some length – with his observations on the current state and future of webcomics, of his trials and tribulations in book publishing, and what started him on this path... and his plans for the future.

What's your background? I know you've been doing this off and on since the first attempt at Scene magazine in the late 90s, but what did you do to keep your head above water before then and what in your background influenced you in the creation of PartiallyClips? Journalism? Advertising? Marketing?

I was one of those heavy readers as a kid, and I gravitated toward writing. I subscribed to Writer's Digest from the age of about 13. I majored in English and graduated from Roanoke College in 1993. I had tried to swing a second major in Business, with the idea that I'd go into publishing, but Accounting II kicked my ass.

While in college, I completed a novel (my fourth attempt at one), but it had glaring flaws and I've never submitted it to a publisher. I also teamed up with an artist friend named Dan Fahs to create a comic strip called "McCloud" (later renamed "Belchburger"), which we tried and failed to get syndicated in 1991. We ended up selling our submission packet as a one-year weekly strip to college newspapers, and got into six of them.

After college I had a lot of unbelievably crappy jobs and temp assignments – foodservice, telemarketing, sales, folding boxes (I was Thought Police for AOL for about six months). Eventually I was on a proofreading temp assignment that I turned into a career in database development. I was fed up with the stupid way they were using the database software, so I took the unprecedented step of reading the manual. In 10 weeks they hired me as the Manager of Database Development, and I began a seven-year, four-company career in IT.

I always hated the cubicles and the emperors who ruled them, so I quit to do the strip full time as soon as I could. That was in July of last year. I've done a few hours of consulting work since then, but mainly I have been gloriously free.

 

You've listed some influences like Red Meat. What were your main inspirations for creating PartiallyClips? And why did you choose webcomics as one of the main mediums to show and promote your work?

Red Meat is the strip that PartiallyClips is most often compared to, and Get Your War On is second. The comparison to Red Meat is a lot more valid, since I first read GYWO long after I had started PartiallyClips. But we're all doing different things.

In 1998, I was producing a lot of content for Scene magazine, everything from first person articles to columns to reviews to contests to fake letters to the editor, so a comic strip was just one more bit of junk I could contribute. Reading Red Meat made me want to experiment with clip art in a comic strip form, and limited access to graphics programs at work made me hit on the format of no art changes from panel to panel. The experiment was born of necessity, but it didn't seem likely to succeed.

The reason I think that it worked for me was that I had been contributing for years to online humor contests, especially the now-defunct Hecklers Online. They used to have a contest called "Three Line Novels," where you had to write an entire "novel" in three sentences. I usually placed near the top and often won.

Scene folded and I let almost all of my creative efforts go dormant to focus on databases. The creative professions are hard to break into and hard to survive in. I figured I would spend 15 or 20 years in IT, get myself financially secure, then go back to school for an MFA and take up writing novels as a second career.

Late in 2001, I got word that my friend Dan had died. Speaking at his memorial got me thinking about all of the creative dreams I used to have, and the combined impact of his death and 9-11 convinced me that the future was uncertain and that I should start building some kind of creative legacy as soon as I could.

I chose to resurrect the comic strip, rather than write short stories or a novel or a humor column or a screenplay or any of my other dormant projects, just because it was the easiest thing to do without disrupting my lifestyle.

But I definitely wanted it to succeed. So I studied webcomics and print comics, the success cases and the failure cases, and I made my plan and went for it. Along the way, I discovered what an amazing group of creative, driven, wacky, fun people are doing comics online. That's been one of the biggest payoffs of the whole project. I'm very glad I chose to do a webcomic.

 

You seem to have a more well thought out plan for the future of PartiallyClips than most webcomic creators, who tend to view their stuff as an eccentric hobby or a guilty pleasure. The marketing to independent newspapers, one book under your belt and another on the way, selling ads (something most other webcomics are just now getting into), the con appearances, the Yahoo connection... what can you tell us of your plans for the future? How far in the future have you mapped out your plans?

It's interesting that you should ask this question while my business plan lies in a state of shambles, if not complete ruin. I have just severed ties with my book publisher.

When I started up PartiallyClips, I had a three-year business plan before I even had a website. It was a complex, ambitious timetable that was also flexible enough to incorporate new opportunities along the way. I had specific accomplishments to make, and specific revenue goals to meet. (Being in corporate cubicle hell for so long was good for something; I knew how to make an achievable plan.)

For the first 18 months or so, it went great. I made more money and got farther along than I expected. I was able to quit my job.

One of the plan's major milestones was to place the first book with a publisher, and Plan Nine Publishing was my first choice house from the very start. They accepted the book in March of last year. We signed an agreement in September.

Now, the business plan called for taking the books that I was supposed to get in November and mailing them out to the editors of the newspapers I was targeting. Their reviews of the book would drive sales, and would cause some of them to pick up the strip from me, expanding my stable of paying papers and my biggest revenue stream.

The books didn't show 'til mid-December. When I got them, they were all wrong. I had never been given any proofs to approve. The strips were completely out of order, the cover had a bad graphic, and the price, bar code, and ISBN were all missing. I couldn't send these things out, and I couldn't get bookstores to sell them.

The owner, David Allen, promised me that he would correct these problems in January. I waited and didn't hear from him. By February, he was telling me he'd do it in March. He sent me a batch of the bad books to sell at cons, only this batch of 50 included at least 5 books that were completely defective (meaning the "book" was just the first 22 pages, repeated five times). In April, I hadn't heard from him and couldn't get a response, so I got my lawyer involved. We're supposed to be terminating the agreement, but even now in May, I have seen nothing from him and signed nothing.

I've got little to show for my experience with Plan Nine. I'm eight months closer to the grave, I've made no money, and I've squandered a lot of good opportunities. I can't speak for other creators, but I know am not the only one who has had serious problems with them, and I would advise any comics creator not to waste their time with Plan Nine. There are other options, including some very good ways to self-publish.

Which brings me to the future, which was what your actual question was about. The near future for me involves a lot of repair work, to try and get PartiallyClips to where it was supposed to be by now. I'm currently working on a complete plan from scratch, and I'm picturing it at about two years long. It will include getting books 1 through 3 (possibly 4) into print, redesigning and repurposing the website, and multiplying the traffic, ad revenue, and the number of papers that carry me.

 

Do you have other projects in the works, not directly connected to PartiallyClips? (I know you developed the Sluggy Freelance "Get Nifty" game). If so, is there anything you'd like to hint about it?

Yes, I have at least four major commercial creative projects on my slate, all of which are sort of creeping forward. I don't want to reveal too much about their progress, but I can certainly tell you what they are.

"Get Nifty" is one (can't talk about that). Elysium Stone, my fantasy novella (which I want to add two parts to and make into a novel) is another. I am also very serious about recording a CD of my parody/folk songs in the near future and getting it played on Doctor Demento (I have gotten some help from Tom Smith and other friends on that). I also have a comic book project in early development with the artist of an extremely popular webcomic (I won't name him, but it's not Pete Abrams).

I should also mention my ongoing role as associate editor of the fandom 'zine Nth Degree, which has been really fun and has helped me navigate the con circuit. A lot of these projects dovetail.

 

How do you view the rest of the webcomics world? We know you have some good friendships among many in the community, like Pete Abrams.

I view the rest of the webcomics world like my family… you're all my brothers and sisters. Simply "having a webcomic" is as good a filter as I can think of to collect a bunch of people worth knowing. This country is full of TV zombies: passive consumers of junk content. Webcomics creators are active producers of content. And even if the webcomics world contains a lot of junk too, at least it's personal, creative junk. I never realized that I would get to meet so many earnest, driven, thinking people in this field. I love almost everybody in webcomics.

The friendships that I've gathered since I started the strip mean a lot to me, and I don't mean just the folks who do rock-star strips like Sluggy, Goats, and Ctrl+Alt+Del. Brian McFadden of Big Fat Whale, Barb Fischer and Chris Impink from Fragile Gravity, Matt Gidney of Mitch in Wonderland, and those weirdoes from All Grown Up have all become important people to me, and really I am just scratching the surface here. (ed. - Balder also mentioned Eric Millikin of Fetus-X as an influence.)

I've been accused of name-dropping, but the fact is that I've met an astounding number of wonderful people in a short time. I feel badly when I don't acknowledge someone.

For example, last month at Penguicon, I met Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary. He and I talked about the business and ourselves and our opinions about people and our ideas about humor and our reasons for doing comics. He was in charge of Online Comics Day a few weeks later and we emailed some more and tried to figure out when the next time our paths would cross. Even though we've just met recently, I would consider Howard a friend. I'm a little better, wiser, and happier for having met him.

That kind of thing happens at more cons than not, and online as well. I could easily list the creators of two or three dozen other comics whom I've met and had a laugh or a meaningful conversation with. I'm realizing as I gush like this that maybe I'm less of a fan of webcomics and more of a fan of webcomics creators. Would that be a bad thing?

 

What direction do you think webcomics should move in, to get more to the general public? Do you think most webcomic authors are focused enough in the direction they want their comics to go in, and how to market them to the general public, or not?

"Should" is different from "will." I fear that parts of the webcomics world will go mainstream, maybe any day now. Why 4Kids Entertainment or someone hasn't picked a strip to develop into a vertically integrated Pokemon-level property is beyond me. But eventually they'll catch on, and then the Golden Age will die.

I think that there are a few properties which could be developed into mainstream blockbusters, but maybe not the ones you'd think of first. Sure, Sluggy could become a $100 million franchise in the right hands, but if I were running Hasbro I would pick a strip like Commander Kitty or maybe Count Your Sheep.

There are a small handful of creators who are thinking about making the jump to mainstream popularity, but most still think that Megatokyo represents the best case, the pinnacle of how successful a webcomic could possibly become. I foresee a webcomic with traffic two orders of magnitude greater than Megatokyo within this decade. I don't know whose comic that might be. It damn well won't be PartiallyClips. Probably it will be something created out of whole cloth by a media conglomerate.

I don't know about "should," though. Should we wave our arms at Time-Warner and ask them to discover webcomics? Should somebody have a chat with Rupert Murdoch? When it finally happens, it'll make some of us rich. But it'll widen the gap between big and small comics by a thousand-fold, and probably blow the community to bits. I'm ambivalent.

 

I've noticed some implied criticism by a very few in the webcomics community of your using clip art instead of your own art... obviously by people who don't remember that Stan Lee used to do MONSTERS TO LAUGH WITH, with funny dialogue added onto old Universal monster movie stills, or Jay Ward (of ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE fame) who used to do FRACTURED FLICKERS, with new dialogue added to silent movies, and that you are following a great tradition. Does that attitude ever anger you, or just amuse you?

It humbles me. I'm always cognizant of the fact that I am a writer in a community of artists. There will always be aspects of doing webcomics which bring the artists together and leave me staring at the ceiling and twiddling my thumbs, or blushing. There are a lot of people who have a webcomic solely for the purpose of refining their craft as an artist, and sometimes I'm at a loss for anything to say to them.

I've never had anyone really attack me for using clip art, but you're right that there's an implication that there are tiers of talent. Those of us who use clip art or sprites or digicam images or 3d rendering programs or stick figures or MS Paint or any other form of shortcut on the art side will probably always be looking up a few nostrils. But it's understandable.

The inclusiveness of webcomics, the breadth of content and technology, these cover a multitude of sins. My hope is that we'll all be judged on what we're trying to do. All I'm trying to do with PartiallyClips is just to get a laugh.

 

Why did you decide not to do continuing characters?

There are some clips that I am tempted to bring back and explore as characters. But there are compelling reasons not to do it.

For one thing, my chosen market (alt weekly newspapers) favors strips that are completely encapsulated. Every PartiallyClips strip is its own universe. Each one has to sit on a page alone and stand on its merits. Someone is picking up an East Bay Express in a bagel shop in Oakland, and there's no guarantee they'd know who the hell was speaking if it was some recurring character or story arc.

Another good reason not to use recurring characters is that it can be a trap, a crutch. If you have some character that every reader knows is, say, a miser… then you can end up doing fifty stale and predictable jokes about how cheap the character is rather than one really devastatingly weird and funny joke that nobody sees coming. My jokes are supposed to be like turning around and accidentally catching a Frisbee in your mouth. I don't always pull that off, but I'm always trying for it.

And the other reason not to have characters is that it's one more differentiator between PartiallyClips and Red Meat.

 

Although your webcomic is for adults, there's no political humor or hardcore sexual references. Do you ever sometimes wish you had altered those self-imposed restrictions, or wanted to make a separate PartiallyClips for more political or sexual humor?

Nobody wants my political views dumped on them. I admire people like Ruben Bolling, Tom Tomorrow, Derf, Jason Yungbluth, and Ted Rall who will stride into the war zone (literally, in Ted's case) and fight the good fight against the almost unfathomable evils that are threatening our nation, our liberty, and our way of life. But I can't do it. It's too frightening for me to make light of. Tom Lehrer said something similar. He said, "I feel like a resident of Pompeii being asked to write some humorous ditties about lava." And I don't think I'd be able to convince anyone of anything important, anyway.

As for sex… hey, look closer. I've got jokes in there about bondage, masturbation, homosexuality, bestiality, incest, fetishism, scat… plus I drop at least a dozen F-bombs. What do you consider "hardcore?" If I could go down to Best Buy and get a CD full of deviant-sex clip art, I'd be there with the plastic. But I have to make do with words.

 

Do you have any advice for other webcartoonists?

God, I could write a book. And I might, someday. What stops me is that I'm generally turned off by people who appoint themselves experts in anything. I think you can end up married to certain opinions after you put them in a book, and once you've gone on record it becomes harder to refine what you believe. Better to keep reminding yourself that what you know will always be outweighed by what you don't, and just keep learning and growing. I guess that's one point of advice.

But maybe you're really asking, "What do you wish you had known when you first started out?"

I wish I had understood from the start not to look at webcomics as a competition. It used to burn me up when I would see comics at the top of these voting lists which I thought were total crap. But I eventually figured out that the problem was in my head.

I realized that we're all on the web for essentially the same reason: to put our work out there for the enjoyment of others. We're all collecting a little sliver of the total audience… just accumulating people who find our work appealing. Any webcomic that's collecting an audience is doing its job, whether I'm IN its intended audience or not.

That realization freed me up from the pressure of measuring my comic's "success" and "quality" against others, and also from the tyranny of my own opinion. I still think certain comics are total crap, but there's no point in resenting the popularity of a comic I don't like. It's entertaining SOMEBODY, just not me.

So my advice to other webcartoonists is: relax, enjoy yourself, enjoy the community, don't make your happiness contingent on your traffic stats or on beating some other comic up the vote list.

 

How have your family or friends adjusted to your rather unusual choice of career?

I was engaged when I started this strip. I'm not now. My being obsessed with the comic was certainly one factor in that breakup, but not the most important. My friends and family have been very supportive, if maybe a little wary. I think they see that I'm a more relaxed, nicer person since I quit the cubicles, but this line of work carries its own forms of stress. I'd say that everyone is happy for me and wishes me well, even my ex.